It's been a rough year for Shabazz Muhammad. As the No. 1 player in the class of 2012, he was in the crosshairs of NCAA investigators before he even signed with UCLA. The only reason he was allowed to play this season was because an airplane passenger overheard the boyfriend of an NCAA investigator bragging about how rigged the case against him was. The circus didn't stop once he stepped on the court either: people have actually written articles about how expensive his backpack is and whether he celebrates enough after buzzer-beaters.
Being the target of such an obvious witch hunt has made Shabazz a sympathetic figure, the latest victim of NCAA hypocrisy and the NBA's "one-and-done" rule. As a result, his inconsistent play this season has been somewhat overshadowed. After struggling with his conditioning to start the season, he's turned himself into a very productive college player, averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 rebounds a game on 46/43/73 shooting. However, there are some serious red flags about his ability to transition to the NBA, none of them which have anything to do with his run-ins with the NCAA.
The problem starts with his position at the next level. You would expect a highly-touted 6'6, 225-pound wing to be extremely athletic, but Shabazz doesn't have the speed or explosiveness of guys like Ben McLemore (Kansas) or Victor Oladipo (Indiana). He's a crafty player with a thick frame, long arms and a knack for scoring, but he does most of his damage below the rim. The closer he plays to the basket, the more effective he is. He has the game of a small forward and the body of a shooting guard.
It's hard to imagine him offering much value on the defensive end of the floor. He doesn't have the quickness to stay in front of NBA shooting guards or the size to bother NBA small forwards. Like many elite collegiate scorers, Shabazz has a fairly tenuous grasp of team defensive principles and doesn't always exert himself on that end of the floor. The difference is that he doesn't have the type of high-level athleticism to compensate. On the next level, he'll need to be hidden on the weaker of the opposing team's wings on a nightly basis.
Of course, there are plenty of NBA stars who are passable, at best, defensively. The question becomes whether Shabazz can provide enough offense to make up for the lineup contortions necessary to protect him defensively. And while he's been extremely efficient at UCLA, most of that damage has come against defenders lacking elite size or athleticism. He's faced only four NBA-caliber small forwards all season: Otto Porter (Georgetown), Andre Roberson (Colorado), Solomon Hill (Arizona) and James Ennis (Long Beach State). Next year, he'll be going up against NBA small forwards on a nightly basis and trying to score on guys like Shawn Marion, Andre Kirilenko, Luol Deng, Paul George and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
High-level NBA wings with his athleticism generally have an excellent feel for the game. Paul Pierce, for example, is a below-the-rim 6'6 small forward, but he's got incredible footwork, underrated lateral quickness and the floor vision to create shots for others. Shabazz, in contrast, spends almost the entire game relentlessly hunting for his own shot. That may be partly the result of his role in Ben Howland's poorly-designed half-court offense, but 1.0 assists on 1.7 turnovers is still pretty feeble for a primary offensive option on the perimeter. If Shabazz gets the ball in the hands, it's almost always going up, which may be why he plays off the ball so much for the Bruins.
If his shot isn't falling, how is Shabazz affecting the game? He's an average rebounder, a poor passer and a poor defender. That skillset doesn't provide much margin for error at the next level. You can count the number of elite NBA players who are one-dimensional scorers on one hand. Carmelo Anthony is 6'8 and 230, so to really bother his shot, you need to be a 6'9, 240+ elite athlete comfortable moving your feet 20 feet from the basket. To significantly bother the shot of a 6'6, 225-pound player, you need to find the same skill-set at 6'7, 230+. There's a lot more guys who match the second description than the first in the NBA.
Projecting NCAA stars into the NBA is as much art as science, but Shabazz fits the profile of guys who have struggled with the transition: one-dimensional scorers without a clear defensive position. That doesn't mean he can't be an excellent pro; there's a place in the NBA for 6'6 guys who can get buckets in a hurry. I suspect his best role at the next level will be as a high-level sixth man, a microwave scorer who can take advantage of weaker second-unit defenders.
The word "bust" is thrown around way too much in NBA circles, when, more often than not, it's a matter of a guy being drafted to fill a role above his ability level. If Shabazz is taken in the top five in June, his career trajectory could look like Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo, one-and-done freshman tagged as "malcontents" because they were drafted too high. In contrast, after Harrison Barnes, who was hyped as the next Kevin Durant coming into college, struggled as a sophomore, he fell to the No. 7 pick, where no one expected him to be a franchise savior. The most frustrating part is that if Shabazz doesn't become an All-Star, people won't be content to look at the holes in his skillset, they'll make it about his character too, just like the NCAA has.
And now, a look at the other NBA prospects on the UCLA roster.
In his own way, Anderson might be as polarizing a prospect as Shabazz. On one hand, he's a legitimate 6'9, 235-pound point forward with the floor vision and skill level to make passes many NBA PGs couldn't. On the other, he's a very limited athlete and an inconsistent shooter who can't stretch the floor or consistently finish in the lane. This is a great quote from Doug Gottlieb: "Anderson is called Slo Mo and if you watch him play, you would think it's the most accurate nickname in the history of sports." If he stays in school, I could see him becoming a National Player of the Year candidate eventually, a la Evan Turner. If he declares after this season, he's probably worth a flyer at the end of the first round, but he'll have an uphill battle to crack an NBA rotation early in his career. (Averaging 9 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals a game on 44/19/71 shooting.)
Adams was the least-hyped member of UCLA's recruiting class coming into the season, but he's been just as productive as any of the four freshman. A 6'5, 220-pound shooting guard with deep range, a quick release and the ability to put the ball on the floor, Adams can get buckets in a hurry. However, like Shabazz, he's a somewhat-limited athlete who will have problems defensively at the next level and he's not exactly shy about hoisting shots rather than working in the flow of the offense. There's a lot of Jordan Crawford in his game. (Averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals a game on 46/31/82 shooting.)
A fourth-year junior power forward, Wear has come a long way from the raw freshman who could barely see the floor at UNC. He's playing out of position as a center for the Bruins, which has exposed his problems defensively and on the boards, but his ability to consistently knock down 15-20 foot shots at 6'10 and 230 pounds might allow him to carve out a role in the NBA. This season, he's clearly differentiated himself from David, his twin brother and backup. Marcus and Markieff Morris are the exceptions, generally one basketball-playing twin separates himself from the other: see Jason and Jarron Collins, Joey and Stephen Graham or Brook and Robin Lopez. (Averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds a game on 52/40/80 shooting.)
Parker, a 6'9 and 275-pound freshman big man, has a long way to go before he becomes a legitimate NBA prospect, but he was a very well-regarded prospect coming out of high school. At that size, he doesn't project well at the next level -- too short to be a center, too slow to be a power forward. Nevertheless, if he's productive enough as a junior or senior, an NBA team might be willing to take a shot on him as a second-unit big man.
That's right, there's a third Gasol brother. Adria is a walk-on whose redshirting this season; he may never even be a contributor at UCLA, much less a professional basketball player. He certainly doesn't need the money. Then again, this was what Marc looked like at 18 years old. Who knows?
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